Using Scrivener for NonFiction (with links)

I got Scrivener as a birthday present last year, and up until this week I’d been using it to work on a couple of novels. The workflow suits my note-taking style: I jot things down wherever I can, whenever I’m thinking of it, and then have to assemble the pieces when I have a bigger chunk of time to do so. As I’ve gotten used to Scrivener, gotten into the habit of collecting my various bits of writing this way, I’ve expanded how I use it. First, I started putting together a new short story collection (though I’m still writing the stories in a separate text document and copying them over). Today, I started porting my notes over from a nonfiction project I’ve been kinda sorta working on the the last two years.

I mean that in the sense that I maybe worked on it a few days a month, but enough that over time I’ve got a good idea in my head of the book’s structure, contents, and style. I know this book. I know the point of it. I know how to write it. All that’s left is the research to back up what I’m saying. Well, and a lot of writing things down.

It turns out, there’s less of that to do than I thought. Once I got everything imported into Scrivener, I discovered my disparate notes actually make up a solid framework. If I can find the time to devote to more research, I think I can have a complete draft done in a few months.

What’s great about writing nonfiction in Scrivener? In addition to the ease of simply writing out of order, as you think of whatever you’re writing that day, I like:

  • Using the split screen, or a QuickReference panel, to keep a separate file open to compile a glossary as I write.
  • References! Citations! Keeping track of every title I used for research! It’s a bit complex to set up, but this is a great explanation.

I also found some links that might help you if you’re writing any flavor of nonfiction with Scrivener:

Editing Tips #3: Who’s Telling the Story?

Before I can edit I story, I have to know a few things. I have to read it over to get a sense of the author’s voice (editing means making the story better, but that doesn’t include making it not yours anymore). I also need to know where the plot ends, so that I can shepherd the opening and middle bits along to their conclusion in a logical way*. But the most important part that I need to know, that I have to be absolutely clear on, is who’s telling this story.

That isn’t the same as identifying the main character, or even the narrator. Think of it this way: in order for you to be reading the story, someone from that world has be telling it to you. Ignore the author; unless it’s an autobiography, the author is just the vehicle. They’re the medium allowing the ghost of your dead husband to inhabit their body in order to tell you where he hid the family valuables. The storyteller is going to be the character that gets the story to the writer.** This is the character who lives all the way the through to end, sees everything that happened, or gathers the information from everyone else.

Sometimes they’re easy to find. A story that begins in the first person, and doesn’t end with the narrator’s death, is probably told by that narrator. A story which features more than one perspective can be harder to reconcile, so you need to read carefully to find the common thread. The person who was there in each scene, or the one who could have talked to everyone else, and gotten their stories.

Sure, not all tales have a single teller. They should, but it’s so much easier to go the “third person omniscient” route, and make your narrator God. Sees all, knows all, lazy fucking storytelling. Yeah, people do it. (But not you, right?)

Say I have a story where a single narrator is travelling through the jungle. It’s first person, narrator uses “I”. I know whose story it is, and it doesn’t change. Now what? Knowing that this is Bob’s tale means that I know where certain things should happen in the plot, because that’s how it would happen to him. When he’s talking about going through the jungle and discovering a camp, he’s describing the trip, the weather, the beat-up road… what comes next? It should be his view of the camp as they come up on it. If it’s anything else, a piece of the later story, and then the narrator goes back to describe the setting, it’s going to feel out of place.

When Helen walks into the room and sees a crime in progress, there are a million ways to describe that. The easiest, and worst, is to tell us things she couldn’t possibly know.

Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor, obviously afraid that the masked man was about to kill her.

How exactly is that obvious? Helen can’t know what Mary is thinking, and there’s no description of the other woman’s face, body language, or anything else that would tell us. She could be afraid that the masked man will steal her jewels, rape her, torture her to get the location of the Maltese Falcon, or even be obsessing about the fact that her new carpet is getting dirty. But the author knows what Mary is afraid of, so let’s rewrite it to say that:

Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor. As tears rolled down her face, a masked man stood a foot away, his gun pointed at her head. Helen wanted to cry out, but was afraid the man would kill them both.

We still have the same characters, we get a little more description (because we’re seeing what Helen is seeing), and we have the threat of death. You can even take out that last line and leave it ambiguous; the audience will certain pick up on the fear and tension here. Depending on the rest of the story, the death threat could have already been expressed, or left as implied. But this way, you’ve removed a place where someone might wonder, “How does she know?” You cut out a chance for the readers to lose their interest in the story. Instead, you keep them in the moment, in that room with Helen and Mary, wondering what’s going to happen next.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our readers look for that storyteller. We pick up a book and we expect it to be told to us. This goes back to our childhood experiences of being read to before we read ourselves, and further back to our cultural experiences of oral storytelling. We exist in a society that encourages active telling of tales (through music, tv, plays, movies and other performances). It’s even in the way we describe how we take in a show: we read a story, not “a story was read by us”. We consume entertainment; we create advertising to portray it as energetic, in your face (or your ears), actively trying to push an experience on you.

We bring that perspective to reading, and find the teller in the story. If you know that ahead of time, you can make sure you’re choosing who that narrator is, and how they transfer their tale to the reader. You can make sure that it flows smoothly, the voice is consistent, and there’s no place where the reader wonders, “How would they know that?” without finding out by the end. You can make clear the path from teller to reader, so nothing stands in the way of them enjoying your story.

Or you can hire an editor to help you with that.

* Logical doesn’t mean straightforward. It means that it has to fit whatever rules you’ve decided apply to your story. There’s always rules, a framework, the physics of the thing. We’ll talk about that another time.

** I don’t mean in a metaphysical way, whether you ascribe to pantheistic multi-ego solipsism (aka “World as Myth“) or not.

Editing Tips #2: Know What You’re Getting When You Have an “Editor”

Whether you have a story accepted at a magazine or you’ve hired an editor to help you smooth off the rough edges on your current wip, you will eventually be working with an editor. The kind of editor you hire, or the type of editing that’s done to your work, depends on whether it’s sold yet and what it needs. Your edits will fall into one of these categories: developmental editing, line editing, typesetting, and proofreading. (Usually in that order.)

Developmental Editing

Also called structural editing, deep (or heavy) editing, or collaborative editing. This is the first round. Here an editor will help you with your story structure, ask important questions about the character, language, or setting, and suggest improvements. An editor can break up long chunks of narrative exposition with more action, or too much internal monologue can be externalized into dialogue. Your plot will be checked for continuity. Maybe you’re using food words to describe people of color, or you’re inconsistently using the language you’ve made up for your alien race. If there’s something problematic about your characters or story, this is where you’d find out.

Paragraphs may get moved around, dialogue cut or rewritten, and the “comment” function will be used to add notes on a range of topics. This kind of editing fixes stories where the idea was good but the author had trouble making it work. It’s rare to get much developmental editing (DE) after you’ve sold a short story, though the market may want you to change one or two things that impact the story but aren’t indicative of a problem with the entire piece. DE is largely done for novels (after acquisition) or for anything you want to make better before you submit it.

While novelists often realize the value of having an editor on board here, I wish more short story authors hired editors at this stage of their writing. I’ve had to turn down so many shorts and novellas that we would have otherwise bought for Dagan Books, because the idea was stronger than the execution.

Line Editing (Copy Editing)

The is the most common kind of editing, because everyone goes through it. When you sell a story, it’s going to be copy edited. Hire an editor? They’ll do this for you. Your work may not need developmental editing, but it will certainly need to be checked for spelling and grammar problems. A copy editor (CE) will find and correct homonyms, or other correctly-spelled but incorrect words your spell checker function won’t point out (like “heir” instead of “their” or “an” instead of “and”). They will catch the little things you missed: italicizing the wrong words, run-on sentences, and paragraphs that need to be broken in two (or those that should be joined with the one next to it).

The CE isn’t there to rewrite your work, or to substantially change it from what it was. The editor is there to see your vision, your ideas, and clear away anything getting in the way of your reader seeing it, too. Continue reading

Editing Tips #1: Personal Style Guide

I’ve been asked to post some editing tips for people in the process of revising their own work. Most editing notes are universal — applying equally to people editing a short story or those revising their novel. You don’t have to follow every one of my suggestions, but if you at least consider them, your work will be much better than it was as a first draft.

Today’s suggestion is a foundation for a lot of the later tips to build on: create your own style sheet.

A style guide is a set of guidelines an editing house follows. It allows an organization to maintain uniformity across multiple publications. Editors are often given a style guide to work from, and while they average around 5 pages, I’ve worked from guides that were 20 pages long. It’s different for each publisher, and often changes depending on the field.

I’m suggesting something less comprehensive: a single-page style sheet. You can skip a lot of the formatting notes because you’ll be using a standard manuscript format for your submission, or tailoring it to a publishers specific request, and that means you won’t need to have those rules in front of you when you edit the first time. (I always put my ms. in standard formatting from the beginning, and then double-check a house’s rules right before submitting.) What you need is a handy go-to guide that reminds you of all the little mistakes you commonly make but might not be thinking about.

Your personal style sheet will evolve as you go along, and it should. Maybe you’ll learn you were using a word or type of punctuation wrong; you might successfully teach yourself to stop making one mistake only to develop another. It happens. What matters is that you update your style sheet whenever you need to, and refer back to as you edit. Continue reading